The Baz Luhrmann biopic of Elvis was one of 2022 best and most talked about films, but it was most definitely ‘his’story, with his wife Priscilla being little more than a supporting actor. Sofia Coppola has now addressed the balance with Priscilla, which looks set to be crowned one of the best films of 2024, with a career making performance from Cailee Spaeny in the title role, and certainly hot right now Jacob Elordi (the dreamboat from Saltburn) as the King of rock and roll. This is a film that could be seen as a polar opposite to Elvis, where that film was bright and flashy, at times almost garish, this one is all about understatement and muted colours, hell, it doesn’t even show Elvis performing. It is most definitely the story of Priscilla, and, at times, a troubling one at that.
The film is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me. It starts in 1959 with a very young Priscilla Beaulieu (just 14), living on a US military base in West Germany. There she is invited to a party at Elvis’ s home, with the reasoning that Elvis likes to meet people ‘from home’. Elvis at this point takes a shine to young Priscilla, despite the fact he is 24 and describes her, in 9th grade at this time, as a ‘baby’. They start to casually date, something her family accept, but are not really happy with, and this lasts until Elvis returns to the USA, leaving Priscilla heartbroken. But Elvis does not forget Priscilla, as her parents hope, and in 1962 he proclaims his love and asks that Priscilla is allowed to come to America and reside at Gracelands, under the chaperone of his father Vernon and stepmother. Priscilla is initially happy with this, but finds life with Elvis to be difficult and strange. She is often left alone as he makes films and hides her away, she is isolated from people her own age, even at school, and when Elvis is home, he spends most of the time playing pool with his entourage. More troubling, he moulds the young Priscilla into his ideal woman, whilst keeping their relationship almost chaste, as he has affairs with the likes of Ann Margret and Nancy Sinatra. As Priscilla grows up and becomes a woman, it is clear this relationship is not the fairy tale it might seem, especially for the increasingly frustrated, caged young woman at the heart of it.
Priscilla is a beautiful film, and Cailee Spaeny is simply brilliant in it, effortlessly playing Priscilla from the age of 14 to 27 and being totally believable throughout. She shows both strength and vulnerability, and you feel so much sympathy for this lonely,often confused young woman. Jacob Elordi is a very different Elvis to Austin Butler, you feel like you get to understand some of his hold ups and vulnerabilities, particularly at the beginning when he is grieving for his mother. Elordi, however, towers over Spaeny, even in her high heels, and this does lead to an unease at what, let’s be honest, feels like a grown man grooming a little girl, even if he doesn’t have sex with her, it still feels like he was creating his perfect dream doll, particularly when he tries to control how she looks and what she wears.
I love the fact that the film does not contain any Elvis music – it is her film, not his, and the use of The Ramones as the opening track, albeit their cover of The Ronettes Baby I Love You, just feels right. The costumes are also perfect, particularly the iconic wedding dress which was immortalised in thousands of images.
Priscilla is a wonderful slice of nostalgia, albeit with a sting in the tale.